Like a lot of small colleges, the main “cash crop” for our department is the Mathematics Education major which prepares students to teach math at the grade 9-12 level. I see a lot of students come through this program, and in the last 4-5 years I have seen more and more students either drop out of it (and change their majors to plain Mathematics) or get into a teaching position and leave the profession after just 1-3 years on the job.
I am thinking more and more that the attrition rate is due not to a lack of ability or preparation on the students’ part, but rather to not holding the profession itself, and their jobs in particular, to a high standard. We certainly hold the students here to a high standard, and by and large they meet that standard. And the system into which they enter holds high standards for them. But there is a tendency for these new job-seekers to be a little too nice, and not demanding enough, when they enter the job market — and they often (too often) end up in jobs that are uninspiring and unsatisfying. They don’t realize until it’s too late just how marketable of a commodity the trained mathematics educator really is, and how much better of an entry they could have made into the profession if they’d insisted on a little more.
And I wonder if the system itself would get better if some of these highly skilled, enthusiastic new teachers would exert a little more market force on the system, taking only those jobs that promise to fulfill them both personally and professionally and then deliver on those promises.
So here is some advice to this effect, for preservice teachers both during their college years and as you prepare to enter the profession.
While you are still in college:
- Become very good at mathematics. Don’t just learn what you think you are going to teach, especially if you think you will only teach algebra I and II forever. Learn it all and learn it with gusto. Get highly skilled at the theory and practice of all the courses that a math major would typically take — including the theoretical stuff like abstract algebra and real analysis. Because a great teacher — one who can be employed on his or her terms — is one who knows not only what s/he is talking about in the classroom but also a lot more than what s/he is talking about, and is excited by the very idea of mathematics itself.
- Learn outside the lines about the nature of the public educational system and participate in its culture. Sure, you’ll learn a lot about the education system through your ed courses, but everybody knows that in any field the real learning experiences happen outside the classroom. Soak in the culture of schools, not just the technical aspects of teaching, while on your field experiences. And very importantly, make a daily habit of reading what practicing high school math teachers are writing on the best ed blogs. Those blogs often give exactly the sort of unflinching, unvarnished look at what really goes on in the teaching profession that you just can’t get from a class or even a field experience. For suggestions, go here and try out a few on the list, and then try out a few from the blogrolls of these.
- Get a highly diverse collection of field experiences. Don’t restrict yourself to just your student-teaching assignment. Volunteer at a charter school and/or a parochial school. Check out the local homeschooling community. Work during the summer at a Montessori preschool (even if you’re a secondary ed major). Experience, experience, experience is important and will make you a better teacher at any level.
Then, when you are looking for jobs:
- Decide, based on what you’ve learned from participating in the culture of teaching, what factors are going to make you happy. You might discover that you really, really want to be in a job where the use of technology in the classroom is enthusiastically and consistently supported. Or you might like a lot of autonomy to make your own pedagogical decisions. Or you might want to stay clear of systems that use reform math pedagogy. Or embrace those systems. Whatever. Learn (through reading blogs and talking to teachers) about the issues that don’t get discussed in your ed courses and make a note of the ones that really strike you as being pivotal for your own happiness and satisfaction.
- Develop a short list of non-negotiables. Of all the things that seem pivotal from the previous point, make a list of 2-3 items on which you simply will not compromise. Maybe it’s salary or benefits. Maybe it’s the absence (or presence) of a teachers’ union. Maybe it’s technology. Whatever. There are some things that would make you happy, but you’d be OK without them. But there are some things that you will find to be more central than anything else. These are the hills you must be prepared to die on when it comes job-hunting time.
- Develop a long and diverse list of jobs for which you will apply, and then apply for them. Do not just apply to your hometown high school. Look at inner-city schools, charter schools, parochial schools, military base schools both domestic and overseas, Montessori schools, schools in adjoining states and on the other side of the country and in other countries. Look at private tutoring and jobs at Sylvan Learning Center types of outfits. You may decide at some point in the future to come back to where you grew up to teach. But in the meantime, look all over the map — both in a geographic sense and in a cultural sense. You want to TEACH — but your hometown public high school is not the only place where you can do that, and you might be surprised at how in demand you really are and how much you can accomplish towards your own happiness by looking at the FINAL step, which is……..
- The most important step: In your interviews, insist on the non-negotiables. When you graduate, if you have become familiar with the culture of the educational systems out there and if you have become very good about mathematics and teaching, then you will be a highly-trained and highly-in-demand emerging professional. There are not many such people out there looking for teaching jobs, and that means that you have a lot more bargaining power than you may realize and can demand more than you think. Your goal now is to become employed on your terms — making sure that the non-negotiable items that are pivotal for your happiness are going to be met, and telling any school on your list which cannot guarantee those things to take a hike. If you have prepared yourself well, and if you have a sufficiently long list of job applications, and if you have intelligently developed your list of pivotal items and narrowed it down to 2-3 most important things, I can almost mathematically guarantee that there will be a school on your list which gives you a job offer which guarantees your non-negotiables. And a job like that is the kind where you won’t drop out of the profession after 1-3 years of frustration and disappointment.
I’d appreciate comments and further thoughts from anybody who has, you know, actually been through the process of getting a job as a high school math teacher.